Erasmus Darwin Criticism

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James Venable Logan (essay date 1936)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry,” in The Poetry and Aesthetics of Erasmus Darwin, Princeton University Press, 1936, pp. 93-147.

[In the following essay, Logan discusses at length Darwin's poetic merits, considering first the poet's occasional verse and continuing on through Darwin's three major works of poetry: The Loves of the Plants, The Economy of Vegetation, and the posthumously published Temple of Nature.]

We, therefore, pleas’d, extol thy song,
          Though various, yet complete,
Rich in embellishment, as strong,
          And learn’d as it is sweet.

William Cowper: TO DR DARWIN

Let these, or such as these, with just applause,
Restore the muse’s violated laws;
But not in flimsy Darwin’s pompous chime,
That mighty master of unmeaning rhyme,
Whose gilded cymbals, more adorn’d than clear,
The eye delighted, but fatigued the ear;
In show the simple lyre could once surpass
But now, worn down, appear in native brass;
While all his train of hovering sylphs around
Evaporate in similes and sound:
Him let them shun, with him let tinsel die:
False glare attracts, but more offends the eye.

Lord Byron: english bards and scotch reviewers

There must have been a murmur of surprise, even in the House of Fame, when that capricious lady sentenced Erasmus Darwin to disgrace and oblivion. It was a cruel judgment on one whom Horace Walpole had admired so extravagantly; on one of whom Anna Seward had said, ‘he is surely not inferior to Ovid; and if poetic taste is not much degenerated, or shall not hereafter degenerate, The Botanic Garden will live as long as the Metamorphoses;1 on one who was regarded by The English Review as among the choicest of poets.

But if a man ever paid penance for his literary crimes, Darwin has. The reviews turned against him, he was cruelly parodied, Wordsworth and Coleridge shuddered over him, and Byron mocked. Modern scholars and critics, when they have mentioned him at all, have for the most part continued the abuse. It has become the fashion to dismiss him with flippancy. He had received absurd praise in his lifetime, and doubtless he became a little swollen with conceit. When such a man is dead and buried, when his fame has crumbled to dust, it is good sport to trample even the dust and to call him ‘a pompous, dabbling, self-satisfied, yet most attractive ass.’2

The wheel has come full circle. It is time that Darwin's poetry should receive impartial judgment, for it deserves the fair consideration not only of the scholar but also of the few who find amusement in the odd byways of literature. In attempting such a criticism the author is not flattered with the hope held out by Edgeworth that ‘in future times some critic will arise who shall re-discover The Botanic Garden and build his fame upon this discovery. … It will shine out again the admiration of posterity.’3 Neither the present writer nor Dr. Darwin need expect so rich a benison. Darwin's poetry is dead eternally for the general reader. But to the student of literature it is interesting both for its own sake and also because it commanded the attention of a vast public during the last decade of the eighteenth century. It was, moreover, familiar—although for the most part despised—to the galaxy of great poets who lived during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. As such, its literary orientation and its artistic evaluation seem not unimportant.

I. OCCASIONAL POETRY

As has been pointed out in Chapter One [of The Poetry and Aesthetics of Erasmus Darwin],4 Darwin's verses on “The Death of Prince Frederick” is the earliest poem that we know anything about. Few would dispute the reviewer in The European Magazine for February, 1795, when he says: ‘His Poem on that occasion, had it stood unsupported by his later productions, would have hardly been distinguished from the rest of his coadjutors.’ Very grand must such lines as these have sounded to the young Darwin:

 Ye meads enamell'd, and ye waving woods,
With dismal yews and solemn cypress mourn,
Ye rising...

(The entire section is 87,646 words.)